A while ago I wrote about re-reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s famous Arthurian re-telling, The Mists of Avalon, in the light of the revelations about her paedophilia and abuse of her own (and others’) children. The Mists of Avalon was a big inspiration to me when I was very young (perhaps about the age of 14 or 15, I don’t recall) and introduced me to the entire canon of pagan/new age re-imagining of ancient British history, concepts of the conflict between christianity and earlier religions and how it affected our culture, as well as leading me to an entire world of eco-feminist and neo-pagan ideology. But it’s hard to believe that Marion Zimmer Bradely (MZB)’s paedophilia and general nastiness couldn’t have shown through in her book, so I decided to re-read it and find out what it is like when viewed as an adult. I’m also interested in how its feminism presents to adults, and how to interpret it given all the additional theory and philosophy that has been developed since she wrote. Obviously I’m not a feminist, but I think if something is obvious sexist, pro-paedophile or just generally immoral one should be able to say so, and nothing is sacred (certainly not on this blog!), so let’s see.

In the first installment I identified some pretty terrible themes and some pretty horrible elements to the story, and since then I have started Book 2, which is just … well, it’s phenomenally boring. So I got side-tracked reading The Atlan Saga by Jane Gaskell. It’s really incredibly to compare these two writers, who were roughly contemporaries and both made their names reimagining ancient stories from a female perspective. Quite apart from anything else, Gaskell is a much better and more interesting writer, with a much more engaging and entertaining writing style, but her stories also have much more happening in them. Book 2 of The Mists of Avalon is basically a bunch of women sitting in rooms talking about who is going to get pregnant, and long scenes of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet not fucking. It’s deeply tedious. But there are a few things going on in it that are worth exploring.

Marion Zimmer Bradley Hates Women

The first thing that really stands out in Book 2, and that is repeated over and over until you can’t escape it, is that MZB really holds women in contempt. All the women in the story except Morgaine and Viviane are either boring, stupid, incurious broodmares, or nasty bullies. They are also inactive, sitting around waiting for things to happen to them, and have very shallow, poorly-developed characters. We learn a lot about Lancelet, Arthur and Merlin, and secondary characters like Cai, Balan or Kevin get a fair amount of attention and detail. They also get to do things – they go to war, they ride horses, they fall off horses, they help women to escape from swamps, they make jokes and lead soldiers and stuff. In contrast we learn almost nothing about any of the women of the court beyond Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, and Gwenhwyfar in particular is portrayed as a weak and terrible character. She has agorophobia, she has longed for Lancelet for no reason since the moment she met him, she is a submissive wife full of worries and doubts and she is unable to have children. Thanks to MZB’s rather awful habit of giving us insight into the thoughts of all the major female characters we get to learn about Gwenhwyfar’s inner life and it’s all self-doubt, self-criticism and fear. She is an unpleasant character, weak and stupid and scared. The only woman in this book with any pride or capacity for action is Morgaine, who is also a highly judgmental and unpleasant person.

The rest of the women are just stupid lumps who sit around spinning and idly exchanging gossip. Morgaine’s contempt for them is shown most clearly in the spinning scene in chapter 7, where she asks herself “do these women think of nothing but marriage?” and the narrative voice (which alternates between a neutral voice and the viewpoint of the major characters without much clarity) describes how they gossip about morning sickness and marriage and scandal, and she ends up falling into a trance that ends in a vision of blood and the entire gathering scattering. It is also in this scene that Gwenhwyfar is reduced to tears by another woman simply mentioning the ability to have children, and now I’m 100 pages into book 2 and this is seriously the most interesting thing that has happened. It is 8 chapters devoted to the dull, humdrum boredom of women’s lives. Women are boring, sitting around doing nothing, while the men are interesting, and the men take action.

The anti-feminist tone

Now, this might be interesting and insightful if it were told from some kind of perspective which attempted to build an alternative world out of the women’s boredom, or to explore it as a prison or a source of stifled creativity, or some other perspective which enabled us to understand that this cloistered women’s life into which Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar have been entrapped is still important or a source of some secret value, or at least enabled us to understand that these women could and should aspire for more, that their secrets and hopes and goals are stifled and they have greater dreams and goals. But we never get shown this. Instead we get regular, dismissive descriptions of women and women’s lives, contempt for the women who are victimized by this world, the women attacking each other, and occasional statements reinforcing the status quo from the main female characters.

For example, at the beginning of Book 2 Morgaine is hiding in the household of King Lot, some Scottish arsehole, who is a famous lecher. While Morgaine is in labour Lot’s wife returns to the main hall, where Lot is sexually assaulting one of her maids. This is what we get:

Lot sat watching, one of Morgause’s younger waiting-women on his lap and his hand playing casually with her breasts; as Morgause came in, the woman looked up apprehensively and started to slide from his knees, but Morgause shrugged. “Stay where you are; we have no need of you among the midwives, and tonight at least I shall be with my kinswoman and have no leisure to argue with you over a place in his bed. Tomorrow it might be another matter.

This is a good example of MZB’s contempt for the female characters in her stories, and also for how she establishes the right of men to do what they want in this world. This girl has no choice in what her king does to her and everyone knows it, the fault is entirely Lot’s, but the queen blames her anyway and the narrative structure of the entire scene makes no effort to establish the helplessness of the girl or the power structures at play which set the women against each other. Basically if Lot victimizes a girl she’s a slut; she deserved it; if she gets caught by his wife well then woebetide her. This is very conservative writing about sex and power.

In case one doubts, there are other points in the story where major characters make clear that there is an order to the world, and that order has men active and on top and women at the bottom. For example in chapter 5 Igraine gives us this little speech about the order of things:

Among the Tribes, indeed, the stronger women fought at the side of the men – there had been, of old, a battle-college kept by women – but from the beginning of civilization it had been the work of men to hunt for food and to keep off invaders from the hearth-fire where their pregnant women and little children and old folk were sheltered; and the the work of women to keep that hearth safe for them.

There is no sense here of disapproval or of desire for change – just a statement of fact about the world that is, followed by a little religious theory (which I don’t quote here) about how the binding of King and Queen symbolized this natural order of things. This is the voice of one of the major characters giving form to the story, with no push-back against it at all. And in case this isn’t clear, a little later Morgaine herself outlines her view of the role of feminism in this world:

And why should it be for the King to give me, as if I were one of his horses or dogs? Morgaine wondered, but shrugged; she had lived long in Avalon, she forgot at times that the Romans had made this the common law, that women were the chattels of their menfolk. The world had changed and there was no point in rebelling against what could not be altered.

Remember, this is supposed to be a feminist re-telling of the Arthurian legend. There’s your feminism there: the central female character of the book saying that the world had changed to make women chattel, and there was no point fighting against it. Note too that this rumination of Morgaine’s is followed by a discussion of building the Round Table, and philosophizing about whether the war with the Saxons will ever end takes up more space in the text than Morgaine’s brief, single paragraph about not bothering to change the world and just accepting her role as chattel.

I really don’t understand how this book got its reputation as a feminist tale.

Extremely conservative views of sex

A final, super weird thing that has happened in my journey through Book 2 is the strange sex scene between Lancelet and Morgaine, in which Morgaine lays out an extremely regressive and old-fashioned view about sex. Remember that Morgaine is the closest we have to a main character or narrative voice in this story, and as far as I can tell we’re meant to sympathize with or at least engage with her character – she is an unpleasant, judgmental, selfish piece of work, but as far as I can tell she’s the person the story is meant to be about, so I think we’re supposed to at least understand her and take her voice as the authoritative tone of the story. So she creeps away from the room she shares with Elaine (one of the character-less waiting-women of this boring story) to find Lancelet. They sneak away to an orchard where they start to have sex. Morgaine knows Lancelet really loves Gwenhwyfar (we’ve had multiple chapters of Lancet and Gwenhwyfar making eyes at each other and only Morgaine noticing for some reason), but she wants to fuck him anyway. But Lancelet won’t fuck her! He won’t “hurt or dishonour” her, and so they proceed to have a long period of sexual play that she seems to really enjoy – she writes that “her body cried out for the pleasure he gave her” – but she gets really angry that they aren’t fucking. She says

What of the flow of life between their two bodies, male and female, the tides fo the Goddess risign and compelling them? Somehow it seemed to her that he was stemming that tide, that he was making her love for him a mockery and a game, a pretense. And he did not seem to mind, it seemed to him that this was the way it should be, so that they were both pleasured … as if nothing mattered but their bodies, that there was no greater joining with all of life. To the priestess, reared in Avalon and attuned to the greater tides of life and eternity, this careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking seemed almost blasphemy, a refusal to give themselves up to the will of the Goddess.

This is just a lot of words to say that sex should be for procreation only, and anything except fucking is bad. There’s no space in this conception of sex for lesbianism, for example, and if your religion tells you that “careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking” is “almost blasphemous” … well, your religion is nasty.

But this is the main character, whose religion is meant to be in contrast to christianity, and everyone presents this story about how the pagan worldview was better and freer and the sadness of losing it … I’m sure we’re meant to understand Morgaine as a tragic representative of a lost world that was better for women, presented as a reimagining of the old stories from a feminist perspective.

But to me it just seems like an incredibly cramped and narrow vision of sex, presented by an unpleasant and judgmental woman who hates all other women, in a story that presents women as weak and characterless, in a world where only men matter.

I don’t think that’s feminism.


I don’t know how I managed to finish Book 2 when I was young, it’s so boring and so relentlessly negative. But it was the 1980s, I was at school, there was nothing else to do, I guess I read a lot and reading countless pages of whinging women spinning was more interesting than hanging out with my family, so fair enough. But what about the adults who talked about MZB’s work as a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends? It’s not constructing any kind of better world, and it certainly isn’t presenting to us a world where women are equal to men that was torn away by christianity. I don’t understand why the critics and writers of that time held it up in that way. Were they so desperate for women’s representation in fantasy and science fiction that they were willing to sell this as a feminist story rather than a nasty tale of boring women sniping at each other while men fight and build kingdoms? Was feminism so under-developed at that time that stories about women spinning while they wait for their men to come home from the war were considered to be somehow enlightening or revealing of some deep inner spirit of women? I don’t understand how the books got so much critical acclaim.

It could be that things change in Book 3, Morgaine turns vengeful against this world and tries to change it, but in truth I’m not sure if I can persevere with this project – I have 10 more chapters of Book 2 to wade through and there’s no sign of anything happening soon. I want to understand the books that contributed to modern fantasy, and this series was very influential, but I don’t know how much longer I can stomach the court of King Arthur in this supposed feminist re-envisioning of it. It’s not very nice, and everyone in this story is awful. If you have any alternative perspective on this, I hope to hear in comments. Otherwise, stay tuned, maybe after a few more months I’ll have managed to struggle onward to the point where something actually happens …